The previous night’s rain has transformed the Half Moon golf course’s claylike soil into an adhesive substance that cakes my boots as Ian Smith, director of golf at the Jamaican resort, leads me to the newly elevated tee box on the fourth hole. “Because big hitters can sometimes reach the green,” says Smith of the 323-yard par 4, “the designer left that ring of palms around it.” Below the cluster of trees, a creek cuts through a recently dug ravine adjacent to the green. Although the hole’s landing area, now awash in mud but soon to be reseeded with Bermuda turfgrass, affords a direct view of the pin, the temptation from the tee—and, for some, the memory of the hole in its previous, more docile form—will lure brazen golfers into this watery ditch, just as its creator has envisioned.
Fine golf courses, like great works of art, eventually require the services of a master restorer. The ravages of time may take radically different manifestations in their subjects, but for an artisan repairing cracks in a Venetian fresco or, in the case of Half Moon redesigner Roger Rulewich, an architect repositioning tee boxes and bunkers, the necessary skills are much the same. Both tasks demand a deft eye guided by a thorough understanding of the genre and of the original artist’s aesthetic and intent. Where the occupations differ is in their purposes: The redesigner of a golf course aims to alter his canvas to make it more attuned to modern tastes and the game’s technological advances.
Rulewich, who honed his skills for 34 years as Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s chief design associate, has built more than 150 golf courses under Jones’ banner (Ireland’s Adare Manor, Firestone North in Akron, Ohio) and independently (Playa Grande in the Dominican Republic, New York’s Saratoga National). But since establishing his own firm in 1995, Rulewich has found his niche redesigning high-caliber courses, including, not surprisingly, several built by his former boss. “I saw his style develop and generate over the years,” says Rulewich of Jones, who designed the Half Moon course in 1961, “so I have a good idea of what needs to be done and how to go about it.”
To adjust for advances in golf equipment since Jones built the course, Half Moon required modernization. Bunkers (“the place where you can really tell the difference between architects,” says Rulewich) that were once in play on a par 4 could now be flown with a 2-iron. The architect’s solution included placing fairway bunkers at distances intended to match both the longest and shortest hitters’ drives. Overall, however, Rulewich found that the course needed refinement more than reinvention. “You can pick and choose at Half Moon,” he says. “On another Jones course, Palmetto Dunes in Hilton Head, we did everything over. Half Moon was more about finesse.”
Rulewich’s major change at Half Moon was an aesthetic one: replacing the course’s Australian pines with palm trees and saplings. The new landscaping has opened up the course’s views and gives Half Moon, which at press time was scheduled to reopen in November 2005, a tropical appearance that is more consistent with its Caribbean setting.
With his ravine on the fourth hole, however, Rulewich intended more than visual impact: The creek at the bottom promises to catch errant shots bouncing off the palm trees around the green. “You can’t reward a player for just placing a ball on a tee and hammering it,” says Rulewich, adding that the idea of an eagle on this hole offended his sense of fair play. Far from offensive, Rulewich’s redesign is sure to please Half Moon golfers and, one must assume, would satisfy the old master as well.